Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Humble Request to Turretinfan Pursuant to 1 Peter 3:15 Concerning His Endorsement of Garry Wills’ Book, “Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition”


Mr. Fan, a Presbyterian gentleman whose writings I have interacted with before posted this article on his blog on February 25, 2013:

Dr. Garry Wills is a lay Roman Catholic. His PhD in classics is from Yale (1961) and he taught history for 18 years at Johns Hopkins University. The Los Angeles Times describes him as "American Catholicism's most formidable law scholar," and the New York Times describes him as "One of the country's most distinguished intellectuals." Wills' "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America," won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1993. In 2008, John L. Allen, Jr. described Wills as "perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years" in the National Catholic Register. His writings generally focus on historical topics, many of them on the intersection of history and religion. I wonder if calling him a "Roman Catholic Darryl Hart" would be taken as the mutual compliment it would be intended to be?

Some think that the dwindling number of priests can be remedied by the addition of women priests, or married priests, or openly gay priests. In fact, the real solution is: no priests. It should not be difficult to imagine a Christianity without priests. Read carefully through the entire New Testament and you will not find an individual human priest mentioned in the Christian communities (only Jewish priests in service to the Temple). Only one book of the New Testament, the Letter to Hebrews, mentions an individual priest, and he is unique -- Jesus. He has no followers in that office, according to the Letter.

It is not surprising, then, that some Protestant communities are able to be good Christians without having any priests. Some priests of my youth mocked them for that reason. They said a Protestant ceremony was just a town meeting, without the sacramental consecration and consumption of the body and blood of Jesus. When I was told one of my pastors that I had admired the sermon of a visiting priest, he said I should not be looking to have my ears ticked, like some Protestant, but should concentrate on the mystery of the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, he was implying, we would have no religion at all.

                        (Why Priests, Introduction, p. 2)

Gary Wills' proposal is going to be shocking to traditionalist Roman Catholics, partly because it would require a radical change in Roman Catholicism, and partly because that radical change would like the Reformation, at least as to a substantial part of its ecclesiology (his position was compared to that of Luther in the New York Times).

We hold to the priesthood of believers, and maintain that Christians have direct access to God through the sole mediation of Christ. Thus, we reject the idea of merely human priests, affirming instead the apostolic model of a church without priests.

Wills' proposal is one that is surprisingly ecumenical. While there would still be certain issues regarding worship that would need to be addressed, removal of the priesthood would be a major stepping stone toward Roman Catholicism being in ecumenical union with "Protestants."

Will Will's proposal be adopted? It seems unlikely. Those in power in Rome have every vested interest in maintaining the structures of power that require a priesthood.


I would note that I commented on Mr. Fan’s article.  You will not see the comment on his blog as he without the courtesy of an explanation deleted it.  Unfortunately, I did not save it either.  I forgot that Turretinfan often deletes comments where the facts do not fit his narrative.  His actions demonstrate the difference between a mere polemicist and a true apologist.  If one is going to defend one’s faith, one first needs to defend what one says while doing so.  I would humbly suggest that the arbitrary use of a “delete” key does not fulfill Saint Peter’s admonition, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks.” (1 Peter 3:15).

Since I do not remember my original comment verbatim, I am going to make my request for explanation a bit more formal here.  I took the liberty of re-posting Mr. Fan’s article in its entirety so one can not say that I was being unfair or uncharitable towards him in asking him to give an explanation.

            Dear Mr. Fan:

            Pursuant to 1 Peter 3:15, I am asking you give an explanation for the assertions you made in your article of February 25, 2013 entitled, “Garry Wills - Why Priests? - Introduction”.  Accordingly, I have posited some questions hopefully you will take the time to answer:

1.         Had you read Mr. Wills’ book before writing your article? 

2.         While you made sure to go through Mr. Wills’ credentials at the beginning of the article, I note that you left out the fact that he did not either obtain an imprimatur or nihil obstat which indicates that the book contains nothing that is contrary to the faith.  Did you intentionally leave off that fact?

3.         By endorsing Mr. Wills’ conclusion that the Church should abandon the institution of the priesthood, do you now also endorse his exegesis of the Letters to the Hebrews claiming that it is non-inspired writing that was added to Scripture by a faction of Christians who wanted to justify having a priesthood?

4.         By endorsing Mr. Wills’ book do you now also agree with Mr. Wills’ conclusion that Jesus’ death on the cross was neither sacrificial nor redemptive?

5.            While we can see that you agree with Mr. Wills’ opinion that the early church did not have the office of priesthood, do you also agree with his opinion denying the priesthood of Jesus Himself?

            I hope that after considering my questions, Turretinfan chooses to take down his article since it endorses a book that contrary to important matters of faith shared by both Protestants and Catholics. 

God bless!

Update:  Mr. Fan has posted a comment and a PS to his post.

First, the comment:

       It's hard to understand how someone could conclude that agreeing with Wills' conclusions
       means I agree with every argument he's made, but apparently someone did. To answer that
       question, no - not every argument. Some of Wills points are valid, some are not. Why anyone
       would expect me to agree with everything a Roman Catholic author rights (sic) is mystifying.


Now if Mr Fan had not deleted my comment, his readers would have known that Mr. Fan's comment is a misrepresentation of what I had said.  I never said there that Mr. Fan agreed with every point that Wills had written.  I only asked Mr Fan if he agreed with certain statements that Wills had made in arriving at his conclusion.  I formed no conclusions myself.  Why anyone who claims that he is writing for the glory of God and portrays himself to his readership as a sincere defender contending for the faith would want to misrepresent what another wrote is equally mystifying.  How exactly does a lie about what someone else says advance  the glory of God in any way whatsoever?    

Mr Fan also posted this PS:

P.S. I seriously doubt that any of Garry Wills' books (from his prize winning books, to his least well recognized books, and including this book) has been submitted for nihil obstat or imprimatur. Naturally, a book (like Why Priests?) that argues as one of its main points that there shouldn't be priests, is not a good candidate for either certification.

At least we know that Turretinfan reads this blog and has read this article specifically even if he will not admit it.  That said, based on his comments, one must naturally come to the conclusion that Turretinfan does not have a clue how one would go about obtaining an imprimatur or a nihil obstat or why it is even important.  One can obtain either without the Church agreeing with the positions advanced or contentions made.  An imprimatur and a nihil obstat do not mean that the Church agrees with the contents of the book; only that there is nothing in the book that is contrary to the teachings of the Church.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Reflection on the Holy Spirit: A Guest Post by Jamie Donald

Disclaimer:  This article was written by Jamie Donald, a friend who asked me to allow him to post his article on my blog.  By doing so, I am not indicating that I necessarily agree with the contents of the post or that I believe it accurately reflects Catholic teaching.  ~PRH


I am a regular reader of David Waltz’ blog, http://articulifidei.blogspot.com/ , and have noted that he has a frequent interest in the nature of the Trinity along with what he refers to as “the Monarchy of God the Father” (or “the Monarchy of the Father” for short).  According to his site index, he has 17 articles on The Monarchy of the Father and 49 articles on the Trinity.  While there is some overlap in these categories (making the total less than 66), this is an awful lot of writing on the topic(s)!  By my estimate, the comments sections to these articles accumulate to well over 1000 comments, with many of these comments being very lengthy and detailed.  Much of the recent (within the past year or so) activity over at David’s blog has motivated me to record my own reflection on the Holy Trinity.

I had considered responding in a comment on one of David’s articles, but chose to write here instead (thank you, Paul!).  I did this for the following reasons; 1) while I am motivated by David’s blog and will interact with some of his thoughts, this article stands on its own; 2) the length of this piece will be much longer than the 4096 character limit in a blog comment, and breaking it into small enough chunks is not feasible; and 3) while David writes rather charitably, not all of his readers are – there has been a significant level of ad hominem attacks in the comments to these articles.  I am hopeful that a “change of scenery” (along with this gentle reminder) will keep the discourse at a respectable level.

A Way to Look at Things

Before I get too deep into any discussion on the Trinity, I’d like to present a couple of examples which show how I look at how people express themselves and at analogies.  For the first example, consider someone who exclaims, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”  Is this person a Trinitarian?  a Modalist?  a Gnostic?  an Arian?  Based on this statement alone, you can’t say.  There’s not enough information given.  As a result, I try to acknowledge what is affirmed while avoiding becoming too critical of what is not said.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever be critical of what is left unstated.  But first you need to realize why the concept is left unexpressed.  Is it a true omission (meant to avoid dealing with the concept)?  Is it out of context for what is affirmed?  Or is it simply unvoiced?  In the first case a critical approach is required, but not in the second case.  In the third case, probing questions should be asked in order to fully comprehend the person’s ideas.  (“Yes, Jesus is Lord.  But what of the Father and the Holy Spirit?” in our example above.)  I try to use this method so that I can truly understand and interact with the ideas expressed by others – their true ideas, not ones I’ve generated for them.

My next example is somewhat more complex.  I ask you, dear reader, to indulge me for a moment.  If you stay with me all the way through the example and its implications, things will fall in place and make sense.

Consider the proposition of multiple dimensions – more than the standard 3-D that we experience and understand.  I can work (and have worked) math problems in four, five, and more dimensions.  But while I can work the equations, I can’t draw you a picture of what they look like.  The best I could do is show what’s called a “projection” of these higher dimensions into our 3-D capability to perceive.

In order to better understand projections, I’d like to move from 4-, 5-, more-D to something a little more familiar.  As I write the first draft of this paper, I’m watching Notre Dame play Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.  The players, coaches, fans, stadium, football, goal posts, Jumbotron, and cheerleaders are all 3-D entities.  But I’m watching the game on my flat-screen TV which is a 2-D surface.  What I see on the TV is a projection of the 3-D world onto 2-D.

Now, what if I were a creature who could only comprehend and experience the world in 2-D?  In that case, I’d see the players going through a sea of green – the concept of them running over the field would be incomprehensible to me as it would require that third dimension that I can’t experience.  Since the receivers try to stay in bounds when catching a pass, I might wonder if the thick white lines at the edge of the sea of green exert some force on the players.  On any given play, a running back may carry the ball such that I can’t see it.  I might conclude that he absorbed it into his body to transport it down the field, or I might think the football disappeared and magically reappeared later.  Most likely, I’d get a general concept of the game, but become somewhat confused on a lot of the details.  When the camera switched from overhead in order to view a field goal kick, I would have a hard time placing the new view into perspective from the old view, and become very confused.  At best, I would miss out on a lot of detail, and my understanding would definitely depend on the camera angle – the particular projection – that I’m able to see.

If you disagree with me, I have just one question for you.  Have you ever changed your mind on the result of a play after seeing the instant replay from a different angle?  If so, then your understanding of the reality of the play changed based on which projection you were able to see.  And you have the advantage of understanding the world in 3-D!

How does this relate to the topic at hand?  Just as 3-D is above 2-D, God’s ways are above us.  I could say, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.  (Is 55:8-9)  Or, At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.  At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.  (1 Cor 13:12)

While God’s “higher ways” are reality, our own ability to perceive them is limited by how we experience reality.  Thus, in addition to raw facts, the deposit of faith includes allegory and analogy, such as Jesus being the rock upon whom our faith is built or the Old Testament Church being referred to as God’s bride in some places and His daughter in other places.  The analogies take the higher reality of the divine experience and projects it into something we can understand (at least to some extent) in our own experiences.

It is important to remember that analogies have limitations.  They are bound by context and they are one-directional.  That is they flow from a higher level to a lower level.  The higher or more accurate reality explains itself in terms of the lower and less accurate experience.  But the lower experience does not explain the higher.  Extrapolations from lower to higher are in accurate.  For example, building faith on the foundation of Jesus is likened to building a house on a firm, rocky foundation.  The house and the rock help us to understand our faith and Jesus – the true thing we want to understand, or the higher reality.  But to then take the experience we understand: house building – the lower experience – and say that laying out roofs, studs, windows, etc, describe our faith would be in accurate.  It would be going backwards.

When defending the Council of Nicea in De Decretis, St Athanasius put it this way, As then men create not as God creates, as their being is not such as God's being, so men's generation is in one way, and the Son is from the Father in another. For the offspring of men are portions of their fathers, since the very nature of bodies is not uncompounded, but in a state of flux, and composed of parts; and men lose their substance in begetting, and again they gain substance from the accession of food. And on this account men in their time become fathers of many children; but God, being without parts, is Father of the Son without partition or passion; for there is neither effluence of the Immaterial, nor influx from without, as among men; and being uncompounded in nature, He is Father of One Only Son. 

Nicene Monarchism

Now that I’ve explained how I look at things, I can begin interacting with some of the items from David’s blog.  It should be noted that concepts fleshed out over 50+ articles, accompanied by 1000+ comments, cannot be easily summarized in a few short paragraphs.  I shall do my best to adequately and fairly represent the thoughts written over there.  If a nuance is missed, it is not intentional.

The position advocated at Articuli Fidei strives to be true to Scripture and the early Church Fathers.  It argues against the same heresies that Nicea argued against, maintains monotheism, and holds that the Father alone is autotheos – the uncreated God who is, by Himself, the source of divinity; making the Father the monarch of the Trinity.  With these qualities in place, the adherents are referring to this concept as Nicene Monarchism. 

Nicene Monarchism can be summarized as follows.  The Godhead consists of the Father, who is also called the “one God;” the Son, who is also the Word; and the Holy Spirit.  The Father, Son, and Spirit are each of the divine essence.  This makes them consubstantial in Nicene Creed terms.  The Father is autotheos, uncreated, God because He is God.  The Son and the Spirit derive their essence or substance from the Father; the Son is begotten of the Father and the Spirit by procession from the Father.  Neither the Son nor the Spirit are created (as you and I are created).  This makes them divine along with the Father.  Their begetting/procession is before time began, hence while they are not autotheos, there has never been a time when they did not exist.  In other words, even though the Father begets the Son and the verb “beget” implies a chronological order, we cannot say there was ever a time in which the Father was without His Son.  The same goes for the Spirit.

This avoids Arianism.  Clearly, the Son has existed since before eternity began and is not a creature.  He is divine by the nature of being begotten, not “promoted” or adopted into divinity.  He is also definitely of the same substance or essence of the Father, not a similar one.  To avoid Sabellianism (or Modalism), the Nicene Monarchist notes Scripture such as Luke 22:42 or Matt 24:36 to show that the entities of the Trinity have different minds and wills.  They are not simply various modes of display or understanding of a single entity.

I think it is the assertions which flow out of the defense against Modalism which seem to generate the most feedback from those who support either classical western Trintarianism and the eastern view of the Trinity.  The Nicene Monarchists maintain that since the Father, Son, and Spirit each have their own separate views, the Godhead is not composed of just three persons, but also of three distinct beings.  If the Godhead were composed of three persons, but only one being, then the believer would be forced into Modalism and would not even be able to support a belief in three persons.  Thus, three persons, three beings, one common substance or nature.  The analogy used goes as follows.  You and I (and each separate reader of my thoughts here) are of the nature/essence/substance of humanity.  We each have separate minds and wills, and we are each separate beings but of the same substance: humanity.  No one would ever think to call us the same single being.

This formulation has those who adhere to the more classical view of the Trinity giving the Nicene Monarchists the label, “polytheists;” specifically tritheists.  Three persons, three divine beings, three gods.  In answer to this charge, they reply that only the Autotheos, God the Father, is God; the Son and the Spirit are divine, but not God.  Or in the words of one adherent, How many times do we have to say this to him? When I am using the word “God” and say that the Father is the One God I am not using it like the Nicene Creed when it says that Christ is God from God. I am using it to refer to the one who is autotheos. If when the word “God” means divine with respect to nature then yes, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God. But that is very confusing to people and so for the benefit of the consciences of the saints I use the word "God' to refer to the Father and "divine" to refer to the nature of Father, Son and Spirit. 

Fair enough, in spite of the irony behind the same person who coined the term Nicene Monarchism being the same who says he’s not using terms the same way the Nicene Creed uses them, a concise definition has been tendered.  But this re-defining must also be applied in various places throughout the Scripture.  For example, in order to maintain continuity of thought between the Nicene Monarchist’s view of the Trinity and the Holy Writ, one should think of John 1:1 along the lines of “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (the Father), and the Word was a divine being.”  Of course, with description defining terms differently than the same terms are used in the source material (in this case the Bible and Nicene Creed), one should also expect confusion.

At this point, those who don’t adhere to the concept of Nicene Monarchism will state that those who do have set it up so that there is God and two lesser beings.  This results in the accusation of Unitarianism as Jesus is no longer defined as “true God.”  The answer is that all members of the Trinity are divine, thus Unitarianism does not apply.

While this explanation of Nicene Monarchism may miss on some nuances, I think I’ve given a fair treatment of it.  And I’ve described some of the answers to objections that are given to support the concept.  I’ll let the reader wade through the volumes at David Waltz’ blog to determine whether I’m being as fair as I claim to be.  With this summary completed, I can now interact with Nicene Monarchism.

An Interaction

Reviewing the Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), and writings of the early church fathers, I see a distinct primacy of the First Person of the Trinity: the Father.  In Scripture the Father Creates.  Even though creation is through the Word or the Son, it is the Father who creates.  (John 1:1-4)  There are things known only to the Father, not to the Son (Matt 24:36/Mark 13/32) and the Son submits His will to the Father’s will (Matt 26:39/Luke 22:42).  And the Father sends the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17).

CCC:248 specifically claims the Father as Principle without principle, the First Origin of the Spirit, and the Father of the Son.  (Note: for full disclosure, this paragraph speaks to the filioque and attempts to reconcile it with Eastern thought.  My intent here is not to discuss the filioque, but simply to point out that the CCC shows the Father as having a primacy over both the Son and the Spirit.  The subject of the paragraph does not change the fact that this paragraph does, indeed, show that primacy.)  In CCC:239 we see that the Father is First Origin of everything, and paragraph 240 includes the relationship of the Father to the Son. 

These examples are not exhaustive, but are sufficient to show some form of primacy of the Father.  (For early Church father quotes, please review David’s blog.  He has well documented many, many quotes.)  Since God has His kingdom, I would find it very difficult to object to the term, “Monarchy of the Father.”

However, I find it much easier to object to concept of three separate beings in the Godhead.  Even with the substitution of “God” only for the Father, and “divinity” (or “divine being”) for the Son and Spirit there are many difficulties which are not resolved and ambiguities created.  One of my first questions would be; what is a being that is neither God nor created creature?  It should be noted that at least one of the Nicene Monarchists has stated that these lesser divine being should neither be worshipped nor prayed to.  I have not noted any of the other adherents to this form of the Trinity showing an alternate belief; either by correction of by a differing nuance in interpretation.

One of the more common objections to the one God, two other divine beings, comprising the Godhead is that this description does not do justice to the unity of God that is found in the Scripture.  I repeat this objection because it is one with which I agree.  The response given by the Nicene Monarchists is two-fold and it deserves attention.  They assert that the classical western view of the Godhead subsisting of three persons, but one being, results in mono-ousious.  Their view of three beings, each with its own – but the same – essence, homo-ousious.  The other response is to point out the distinction between generic unity and numeric unity.  They maintain a form of unity in both cases.  God the Father, as the One God, is numeric unity (with Himself) and preserves monotheism.  Generic unity comes from each person of the Trinity being of the same substance or essence.  Again, the analogy of mankind is used.  Each of us, while being distinct individuals, has a certain level of unity in the generic sense.  We are all of the substance, or essence, of humanity.

However, both of these responses contain errors which I cannot ignore.

The distinction between mono- and homo-ousious – at least the way it is being presented – is a false dilemma.  By definition, something that is mono-ousious cannot by poly-ousious.  Therefore, it is still homo-ousious.  It is the same essence or substance as itself.  The distinction which was important in early Christianity (and still important today), is that Christ’s divinity is the same as the Father’s.  It is not a similar divinity which would then require multiple divine substances, or poly-ousious.  The bottom line is that even if the classical view can be defined as being “mono-ousious,” that definition still does not deny homo-ousious.

As far as asking about generic vs numeric unity goes, that question applies the analogy in a backwards fashion.  I am certain that the Nicene Monarchists neither intend to nor think they are applying it in the wrong direction, but I ask the reader to bear with me for a moment.  In using the analogy of many humans (numeric disunity) but one humanity (generic unity), the unspoken assumption is that God experiences unity in the same fashion as we do.  This ends up forgetting that His ways are well above our own ways.  We are the limited creature trying to explain the infinite God as an extrapolation of our own experiences.  We cannot expect any more success than the 2-D creatures would have when trying to explain the 3-D game of football.

In fact, Scripture shows that God experiences unity differently than we do.  In Matthew 25, when Jesus prophesies the division of the sheep from the goats on Judgment Day, He claims a particular unity with each individual human being.  The good which we do to others is personally experienced by Him, and the bad which we do to others are also personally hurtful to Him.  Christ experiences a level of unity with humanity which we do not experience with ourselves.  Let me use a very personal example.  Over the past six years, my wife and I have taken in eight people who found themselves temporarily homeless.  For these people we housed them, fed them, and clothed them.  As a Christian, I can do no less; so I do not ask any accolades or reward.  But I do ask how many reading this experienced the good which we did to these people?  Yet Christ did.  A year ago, when one of these individuals (after moving on) chose to break into our house and rob us, how many of you felt the pain and hurt that we experienced?  Again, Jesus did.  How could any of you experience the good or bad in these cases?  You never knew of them until now.  But the Son of God – united to us – knew and experienced it with us.

If Jesus experiences a unity with us that we do not experience ourselves, then why assume that the unity he experiences with His Father and the Spirit in the divine realm would be any less intimate?  The unity of the Son with the Father, detailed in John 14, is of this very intimate form.  Seeing the Son means seeing the Father.  It is an actual seeing; not a case of “see one divine being and you’ve seen them all.”

For another example, look to John 14.  Here, as Jesus prays during the Last Supper, he asks that His disciples obtain unity; and he specifies that it be the form of unity He experiences with His Father.  This is noteworthy for two reasons.  First, anyone would admit that Christ’s disciples (including those who have come to believe through the testimony of His original disciples) is but a subset of the total of humanity.  This means that even if Christians obtain a unity akin to that which occurs for the Father and the Son, humanity in general does not.  Second, Jesus’ prayer is a request for a future state of His disciples.  I do not know anyone who claims we have been blessed with that particular gift as of yet.  Either way, both points demonstrate that the “generic unity” of humanity is not the unity of the Godhead.  To use our understanding, coming from our experience, is backwards and inadequate.

To explore the unity of the Godhead a little further, I’d like to take a quick look into the Old Testament.  The Exodus narrative includes a column of fire and smoke leading the Israelites, a strong wind parting the sea, manna, and water flowing from a rock.  Throughout the Old Testament, God reminds Israel and Judah (especially when they had gone astray) of the fact that their escape from Egypt and survival in the desert was His doing.  And His reminders frequently include these particular elements.  (For a few examples, see Num 9, Dt 5, Dt 8, Judge 2, Judge 6, 1 King 8, 1 King 9, 1 Chron 17, Neh 9, Ps 78, Ezek 20, Dan 9, Hos 11, Hag 2.)

But if we recall that the term for Spirit used in Gen 1:2 is the same as wind, and add to that John the Baptizer’s prophecy that the Son would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit – followed by the Spirit descending as tongues of fire on Pentecost; then we come to realize that the Spirit was responsible for the parting of the sea and the directional leadership of the column of fire.  Psalm 78 identifies the rock which provided water as the Redeemer.  1 Cor 10:4 tells us that the Redeemer in Ps 78 is Christ Himself.  In John 6 we learn that the manna is also Christ.  The feeding and sustenance of the Israelites was from the Son.  But it is a unified God who reminds the Israelites that He has done this for them in the various passages I referenced above.

In developing his thoughts on the monarchy of the Father, David Waltz (in one of his more recent articles) referenced De Decretis by St Athanasius.  St Athanasius is an excellent source for understanding the thoughts and theology behind the Council at Nicea.  Not only was he present at the Council, but he also had a “speaking role,” defending the faith and proposing ideas which would be used by the bishops present in formulating their creed.  Additionally, he is revered as a “Doctor of the Church” by both Catholics and Orthodox.  De Decretis is a letter he wrote after the Council which is a very strong defense of the Creed coming out of Nicea.  Thus, this letter, in particular, is one of the best sources, contemporary to the Council, to understand the issues which were addressed and answered at Nicea.

David is correct in his assessment that De Decretis speaks to a primacy of the Father as Creator of the universe, as Father of the Son.  This is a primacy denied to both the Son and the Spirit.  As I noted above, the CCC does not dispute, but in fact endorses, this primacy.  So there is no argument in this arena.  But a careful read of De Decretis, specifically written to explain and defend Nicea, will show a unity in the Godhead which is not a generic unity as some of the Nicene Monarchists advocate.

The translation of De Decretis which I use can be found here.  This edition is divided into 7 chapters and 32 paragraphs.  The paragraphs are numbered sequentially.  That is, the last numbered paragraph in Chapter 1 is paragraph 2.  The first numbered paragraph in Chapter 2 is paragraph 3.  For the most part, I will simply refer to paragraph numbers and omit the chapter numbers unless doing so results in ambiguity or confusion.  (For example, there is an un-numbered paragraph in Chapter 2.  This paragraph is sandwiched after the chapter heading, but before paragraph 3.)

When reading De Decretis, I count at least five times where Athanasius tells us that the Son is begotten “of the Essence” (of the Father) and exists “in the Essence” or They are “one in Essence.”  The terms are either used in the same sentence or in adjacent sentences.  He shows that the terms can be compared and contrasted with each other and complement each other.  “Of the Essence” is not merely synonymous with “in the Essence.”  Paragraph 20 is a good example as it contains three instances of these terms together.

This starts creating an image that suggests the Son cannot be held separately from the Father; neither in time of existence, nor in substance.  I have already quoted from paragraph 11, where Athanasius suggests that trying to understand the divine Father/Son relationship by use of the human experience (alone) is insufficient.  I will quote it again, with emphasis added, to show that Athanasius is consistent in painting a picture where the Son cannot be held separate from the Father.

As then men create not as God creates, as their being is not such as God's being, so men's generation is in one way, and the Son is from the Father in another. For the offspring of men are portions of their fathers, since the very nature of bodies is not uncompounded, but in a state of flux, and composed of parts; and men lose their substance in begetting, and again they gain substance from the accession of food. And on this account men in their time become fathers of many children; but God, being without parts, is Father of the Son without partition or passion; for there is neither effluence of the Immaterial, nor influx from without, as among men; and being uncompounded in nature, He is Father of One Only Son.

In Athanasius’ mind, if Christ were to be a unique instance of the divine substance, then something would have to flow out of the Father and out of His essence and existence to form the unique, separate instance essence of the Son.  But this would mean that the Father could be divisible.  The Father would not be One, but would consist of divisions which could create another copy of the divine substance.

Lest anyone think that this thought process is unique to this particular quote, I will go to paragraph 15 where Athanasius confronts the natural conclusion of the Arian concept by saying, But if they agree with us that the sayings of Scripture are divinely inspired, let them dare to say openly what they think in secret that God was once wordless and wisdomless….  Let’s take a closer look at this response and it’s implications.  If the Arians were correct and the Son was created and they agree that the Son is the Word and Wisdom of the Father, then there would have been some time when the Father was without Word and Wisdom.  He would have been an incomplete god.  But this applies too if one will assert three numerically unique divine substances.  The Son being Word and Wisdom, and uniquely separated from the Father, would make the Father incomplete as He would not have either of these.  Again, the picture painted is one where, while the Persons of the Trinity are unique, their existence cannot be separated from each other.

Finally, in chapter 17, Athanasius identifies the Son as the Hand of God the Father.  This is the same Hand that in chapters 7, 8 & 9 creates and manipulates the universe.  The imagery of a hand is that of an integral part of the body.  It cannot be separated.  When we combine all of these very robust analogies, the thought that the Godhead’s unity subsists in a generic unity of substance/essence, but not of existence or being, becomes unsustainable.  The Son is of the Father and in the Father.  And the Father and the Son are one.  He who has seen the Son has seen the Father.

Interestingly enough, Athanasius also quotes three (relatively contemporary) bishops who wrote prior to the Council of Nicea; Theognostus, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Dionysius of Rome.  (paragraphs 25 & 26).  Paragraph 26 of De Decretis contains a lengthy quote of the Bishop of Rome’s tract which was contra the Sabellians.  I find almost no difference between this paragraph and the view of the Trinity which I have been taught throughout my life.  Since Athanasius quotes him approvingly and without qualification, we can only assume that he is in agreement with what Dionysius has outlined.  Athanasius quotes these three to show that this was the view of orthodox Christians prior to Nicea.  Finally, he quotes Origen (paragraph 27) to demonstrate this view – as outlined by the Nicene Creed and his tract, De Decretis – is the understanding the Church has had from its formation.  In short, the age-old belief is not that of three instances of the divine essences as outlined by the concept of Nicene Monarchy, but is a belief in the divine persons of the Godhead, the Son and the Spirit, being of the Essence and in the Essence of the Father.  The Father is One because His Essence cannot be divided nor distributed.  Thus, while not unoriginate like the Father, by being both of and in His Essence, the Son and Spirit are also one in the Godhead.

Further Reflections

While researching and meditating over the topic of this article, I was struck by the amount of the Trinity which can be seen in the Old Testament.  I’ve already alluded to the totality of the Godhead; Father, Son, and Spirit united; leading the nation of Israel out of Egypt.  If we look to the first two verses in Genesis – many translations having this be the first sentence – we also see the totality of the Trinity.  The Father who creates through the Son (per John 1) and the Spirit (some translations state that it is a wind which sweeps across the formless void in Gen 1:2, but the Hebrew word for wind, ruah, also means spirit).  So from the very beginning (yes, I’m aware of the pun on the word for “genesis”) we have the Trinity involved in the story of mankind.

When man is created, again it is by the Father and through the Son.  And God breathes life into Adam.  But the wind, the breath of God, is the Spirit.  We are literally alive because the Spirit of God in some way animates our souls.  This is not the Grace of the Spirit received in baptism, but it does make our lives a true gift from God.  As we know, later the Son will go beyond mere creation of men and become flesh Himself.  Is it any wonder that with the Spirit breathing life into our souls, that the Son would experience such a profound unity with mankind as he describes in Matthew 25?

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel and Judah frequently turn away from the Lord.  When they do, God the Father disciplines them with exile and through being subjugated.  But He still encourages them to turn back to Him, and He – through the prophets – tells them just how to accomplish that return.  We know that all revelation is from the Spirit (2 Tim 3, 2 Pet 1).  And we will find that it is the Son who provides for them in their deepest needs; with examples being the rock providing water, manna from Heaven, and the fourth person in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Again, a unified God is active in all aspects of the life of His people; discipline, encouragement, guidance, and sustenance.

Finally, we will recall that the Spirit is associated with fire and smoke; and Revelation 8 tells us that in religious ceremony, smoke carries the prayers of the faithful to God.  When the Israelites would offer burnt sacrifices to God, it was the Holy Spirit (through the smoke of the fire) carrying their offering to the Father’s Heavenly altar.  It makes no sense that non-burnt sacrifices (such as a wave offering) would be carried to God any differently.  Thus, it is the Spirit who carries all sacrifices to the Father.

It is important to remember that the priest offers the sacrifice to God, but that sacrifice is from the person or family who worships.  In the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross, it is the Father who gives his Son as a sacrifice (see John 3:16).  Christ voluntarily gave Himself (see Matt 16:21-23).  But the Son is also both the sacrifice and the priest officiating over the offering.  Finally, the Spirit carries the sacrifice to the Father.  The unified Godhead – on our behalf – provides the sacrifice, offers the sacrifice, is the sacrifice, carries the sacrifice, and accepts the sacrifice that gives us life everlasting.  Because this action saves our souls, it is an infinitely more profound and intimate act of the Godhead disciplining, encouraging, guiding, and sustaining our existence.  Can we be anything other than completely awestruck?